Afghan elders threaten opium growers

Tribal elders in southeastern Afghanistan have threatened to torch the houses of people found growing opium and make them pay a hefty fine in a bid to stamp out the burgeoning poppy cultivation.

By far the most drastic suggestion yet offered for tackling the country’s rampant drug trade, the punishment failed to win the approval of Afghan President Hamid Karzai despite his anti-narcotics stance.

But with tribal law replacing a non-existent justice system in the outer reaches of Afghanistan and without a clearly defined strategy for eradicating drugs, the extreme solution shows just how tough the battle against opium is going to be.

Backed by the United States and other Western governments, Karzai vowed after his inauguration last month to launch a “jihad”, or holy war, against narcotics, which account for two-thirds of Afghanistan’s economy.

The tribal council of southeastern Khost province appeared to have taken him at his word, announcing in a radio broadcast earlier this week that anyone arrested for robbery, setting explosives or growing opium would have to pay a 100 000 Afghani ($2 083) fine and would have their house burnt down.

“All the tribes agreed to obey this agreement and all tribes signed it, so ordinary people in each tribe will obey and respect it,” said Sultan Mohammad Babrakzai, assistant Head of Tribes Affairs Department in Khost.

Babrakzai added that the tribesmen would also burn down the houses of anyone who supports Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants in the region, which has been a hotbed for attacks on US and pro-government forces.

Khost’s tribal elders made the headlines in September ahead of Afghanistan’s first presidential election for threatening to burn the houses of any locals found not to be voting for Karzai, who later won the October 9 poll.

Now they are throwing their weight behind Karzai’s drive to stem the growth of Afghanistan opium crop which jumped 64% over the last year and now accounts for almost 90% of the world’s opium and its heroin derivatives.

Karzai distanced himself from the threats, saying that violence was an unacceptable way to tackle the problem.

“While welcoming the determination of many Afghans to rid the country of the curse of poppies and drug cultivation, the government asks all Afghans to abide by the constitution and laws.

The Afghan government is opposed to threats of violence against any Afghan citizen,” said Karzai’s spokesperson Khaleeq Ahmad.

Growing or trafficking opium is a jailable offence but across southeastern Afghanistan government structures are weak and ancient tribal law holds sway, enforced by young men belonging to tribal militias while local courts and police forces are not robust enough to tackle the problem through legal means.

“Tribal leaders and rules have a big influence among ordinary people in Khost, so this agreement of tribal leaders will have an effect on security, reducing Taliban activities and clearing poppy cultivation in the region,” siad Ghazi Nawaz Tani, the head of Tribe Unity Council.

He was one of the those who drafted the new declaration and said tribal support could play a positive role in dealing with the two major challenges for the Afghan government—security and stemming poppy cultivation.

But the tribal ruling apparently fails to address the crux of the opium problem in Afghanistan—offering an alternative money-spinner to despairing, near-destitute local farmers.

“I cultivated poppies on my own land and if they grow and sell it can lift me out of poverty. I don’t have an alternative,” said Khan Bad Shah, a 36-year-old local farmer from Khost province.

If tribal militias eradicate his poppy fields Shah would struggle because opium generates around 10 times more income that wheat or other cash crops.

Khost province is not one of Afghanistan’s main opium growing regions because of the climate and the soil, and cultivation is mostly limited to more remote mountainous regions.

However, unrest in southern Afghanistan linked to the government’s drive to eradicate opium poppies has already begun with at least one government soldier working on eradication killed on Thursday in Deh Rawood district in the southcentral Uruzgan province.

The soldier, who was part of a convoy of 50 soldiers working on poppy eradication, was killed by two militants local authorities said were linked to the Taliban. The attackers were killed later by government soldiers.
- Sapa-AFP

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